Thursday, April 24, 2008

Pentecost & the Ascension

The explanation that Peter gives for Pentecost is that Jesus has ascended to God's right hand. "Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this which you both see and hear" (Acts 2.33).

First, of interest in passing, is that it is Jesus who pours out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

Secondly, what remained unfulfilled of Israel's OT exile was the re-establishment of a (legitimate) king, and the outpouring of the prophesied Spirit. The definitive end of Israel's exile, and the world's, comes with Jesus' ascension to his throne and the out-pouring of the Spirit. But the visible indication that Jesus has assumed his throne is the coming of the Spirit. So Pentecost vindicates Jesus' claim to be who he said he was. (The events of 70 A.D. do so as well.)

Pentecost isn't merely the beginning of the church, and it isn't merely the coming of the Spirit, although it is both of those. Both of those occur, however, because Jesus has ascended to the throne. And, as with Solomon, the Spirit does not come into the temple until the King has prepared the temple.

Daniel 7 gives us a peek into that day. Note that the coming of the Son of Man on the "clouds of heaven," is not about the Son of Man coming back to earth, but is about the Son of Man coming to the heavenly throne room to be received by God the father. So in the New Testament, when Jesus refers to "coming on the clouds of heaven," we need to read that, in light of Daniel 7, as a reference to his ascension, not as a reference to his return to earth in judgment.

Daniel's vision paints an amazing picture:

"And behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man was coming, and he came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was giving dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and his kingdom is one which will not be destroyed" (Dn 7.13-14).

Jesus points only to his ascension in vindicating himself before the Sanhedrin (Mt 26.64, cf., Dn 7.13). His ascension to the throne is his sole defense before the Sanhedrin. For Jesus, everything rides on this one thing being true. So Pentecost is huge. Not just because of the pouring out of the Spirit, but because of what the pouring out of the Spirit means with respect to where Jesus is and how it vindicates who and what he claimed to be.

Jesus also points to his ascension -- the reestablishment of God's kingship over all of creation -- as prompting the spread of the Gospel throughout the earth (Mt 24.30-31). But this is also prophesied in Daniel as well. Jesus is given the kingdom "that all the peoples, nations, and languages might serve him" (Dn 7.14).

Finally, note the connection between speaking in tongues and the ascension: Daniel prophesies that the Son of Man is given dominion, glory, and a kingdom that "men of every language" might serve him (ibid.) According to Daniel, that's what occurs as a result of the ascension. And this prophecy was fulfilled immediately on the day of Pentecost when "men from every nation under heaven" hear the disciples speaking "in his own language" (Acts 2.5-6). So it is entirely appropriate that, in explaining the meaning of tongues (Acts 2.12), Peter preaches the ascension of Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Jack takes State in Two Level-4 Gymnastic Events

This last weekend Jack participated in the state gymnastics tournament. He took first for level 4 in the floor exercise and the rings. He took third place in the vault. I posted pictures from an earlier tournament here. Funny thing, though, is that he did poorly in what up to now had been his "best" events -- the parallel bars and the high bar. His coach said Jack was overly aggressive in these events, and that he screwed up as a result.

Next year Jack moves up to level 5. There's a huge divide between level 4 and level 5 in boys gymnastics. We'll see how he does then. He does love gymnastics, though.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Peter's Reference in Acts to Jesus as the Davidic Warrior-King

This caught my eye the other day: In replacing Judas, Luke records Peter in Acts 1 as saying this, "Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us -- beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us -- one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection” (vv. 21-22).

Of interest is Peter’s phrase about the period that “Jesus went in and out among us.”

The phrase, “went in and out among us” might be suggestive of the OT term of art that refers to the OT warrior-leaders leading military campaigns against the enemy.

For example, from 1 Sam 18:

“Therefore Saul removed [David] from his presence and appointed him as his commander of a thousand; and he went out and came in before the people. David was prospering in all his ways for the LORD was with him. When Saul saw that he was prospering greatly, he dreaded him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, and he went out and came in before them” (vv. 13-16, emphasis added).

And this from Numbers 27:

“Then Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, ’May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD will not be like sheep which have no shepherd’" (vv. 17-18, emphasis added).

2 Samuel 5:

“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, ‘Behold, we are your bone and your flesh. Previously, when Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel out and in and the LORD said to you, “You will shepherd My people Israel, and you will be a ruler over Israel.”’ So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them before the LORD at Hebron; then they anointed David king over Israel” (vv. 1-3, emphasis added).

2 Chronicles 1:

“Solomon said to God, ‘You have dealt with my father David with great lovingkindness, and have made me king in his place. Now, O LORD God, Your promise to my father David is fulfilled, for You have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of Yours?’" (vv. 8-10, emphasis added).

So, first, I wonder whether Peter is echoing the OT language of “going out and coming in,” reflecting Jesus' earthly ministry as one akin to the OT warrior leaders, and, particularly, of the Davidic-warrior king.

But it’s not just the phrase itself, it’s the explanation that Peter provides in Acts: The period in which Jesus “went in and out among us” is precisely the period of Jesus’ baptism through his ascension – the period of his ministry on earth, beginning with the beginning of his warfare with Satan (recall the desert temptations immediately followed Jesus’ baptism) through his ascension – when the victorious Lord ascends to his throne.

So Peter seems to identify the period in which Jesus "went in and out among us" as precisely the period of Jesus warfare against Satan, from beginning to end.

I don’t know that I’d absolutely insist on it, but Peter’s language does seem suggestive.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Few Thoughts about World Food Prices

I guess I noticed it sometime last year, when egg prices at the grocery store doubled, and milk prices were one-third to 50 percent higher than they were just a few months before.

What I observed at the grocery store seems confirmed by a number of reports -- world food prices are increasing across the board.

The thing is, it's not so much that food prices are now higher than they've ever been before, rather, as you can see from the graph below, it's that the last several decades the world has seen relatively low food costs relative to earlier years.

A couple of observations here.

First, from just eye-balling the graph, there seems to be a strong association between oil prices and food prices. The highest spike is in the 1973-74 period when OPEC initiated their first oil embargo. Prices then spiked again around 1979, around the time of the second oil embargo.

Subsequently, oil prices declined significantly (in real terms) and food prices decreased as well. In the last few years, oil prices have increased significantly, and we see food prices spiking again.

To be sure, correlation does not mean causation -- after all, it's possible that the same factors causing food prices to increase also cause oil prices to increase, so the oil price increase does not cause the food-price increase -- nonetheless, the association suggests a plausible prima facie causal influence. For example, oil prices would affect food prices because of transportation needs, fertilizer production, energy needed for tractors and irrigation, and etc.

I also wonder about the effect of the "Green Revolution." No, I'm not talking about environmentalism, I'm talking about the first Green Revolution that started in the 1960s -- the outcome of agricultural research that allowed food production to increase significantly. You wouldn't expect the full effect of this revolution to be felt until its lessons could be fully implemented. A ten-year lag between the agricultural advances and their observation in the fields doesn't seem unreasonable. This, too, would predict lower food prices (relative to the sixties) to start in the mid-1970s.

The thing is, Malthus's logic was never repealed. So a one-time increase in food production relative to the population would mean lower food prices in the short run. Nonetheless, population would, presumably, once again begin to catch up to the new level of food production (as more infants lived beyond their infancy and as people lived longer because of better nutrition). Nonetheless, over time, you'd expect population increases to "catch up" with the increased food production. But as demand increases relative to supply, you'd expect prices to increase as well.

We also hear a lot about bio fuels being a cause -- although that, in turn, would be related to oil prices, as increasing oil prices make bio fuels more competitive. Nonetheless, the figure I hear is that one-third of the U.S. corn crop now goes toward bio fuels. That seems like a high number to me -- I don't see that many people pumping ethanol into their gas tanks, but I have no reason to prefer that sort of anecdotal evidence to hard data. (Although I'm unsure that the "one-third" number is actually hard data. I have yet to learn the source of the number.)

But if true, that number would seem to suggest the need to eliminate government subsidies for ethanol production. It wouldn't seem as though the industry needs them, and farmers don't need the increased demand in order to derive high prices for their crops.

This would also seem to be an opportune time for Washington to repeal agricultural tariffs and farms subsidies. After all, farmers are receiving higher prices for their crops, and poorer Americans would benefit from the importation of cheaper foodstuffs. This would also help increase the production of food in other countries, although I think the net effect would be to increase food prices outside of the U.S., unless food production increased a whole lot as a result of scale economies. Nonetheless, the elimination of tariffs and subsidies would also eliminate dead-weight costs that should leave almost everyone better off.

Another cause might plausibly be increasing affluence in developing countries. India and China, for example, have huge populations and have been experiencing substantial economic growth. Affluence increase food consumption, not only in amount but in degree. For example, even if more affluent people eat the same number of calories per day, they tend to substitute meat for vegetable protein sources. But, of course, an ounce of animal protein take many times the amount of vegetable protein to produce. So demand for grain and other feedstuffs goes up even if average caloric intake does not.

Finally, while it is true that food prices are spiking now relative to the last couple of decades, from the graph we see that real food prices were nonetheless double what they are today during the first oil embargo. Still, the oil embargo was a politically-induced oil shortage. Today's oil prices seem to be more of a reflection of increased demand as industrialization spreads to countries like India and China.

So I don't know. Maybe this is just a temporary spike like the 70s. Or perhaps we're reverting to a longer-term equilibrium of (relatively) high food prices, and the experience of the last twenty years or so will be looked upon as a sort of blessed period of cheap and abundant food. If it is the latter rather than the former, then the church will have her work cut out for her in the decades to come.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Book of Mormon Denounces Polygamy as an "Abomination"

Somewhat surprisingly, at least to me in light of Mormon history, The Book of Mormon denounces polygamy in terms even more direct than the Bible does. From Jacob 2:23-28 in The Book of Mormon:

"But the word of God burdens me because of your grosser crimes. For behold, thus saith the Lord: This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for the seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son.

"Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.

"Wherefore, thus saith the Lord, KI have led this people forth out of the land of Jerusalem, by the power of mine arm, that I might raise up unto me a righteous branch from the fruit of the loins of Joseph.

"Wherefore, I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do lie unto them of old.

"Wherefore, my brethern, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none;

"For I, the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women, And whoredoms are an abomination before me; thus saith the Lord of Hosts."

As I said, this is a more direct condemnation of polygamy than the Bible includes. (In the Bible, OT kings were prohibited from multiplying wives, and NT bishops needed to be the husband of "one wife." But beyond that, strictures against polygamy for the laity are deduced rather than explicit. I've written about the New Testament prohibition on polygamy here.) So it seems all the more surprising that a few years after Jacob was written down, Mormon leaders began to practice polygamy. I am sure that they have an explanation for why God would allow a practice that he had pretty clearly prohibited in a text ostensibly revealed anew just a few years beforehand (and then why he would change his mind again a few decades later on, and prohibit polygamy again). Nonetheless, re-authorizing a practice that you called an "abomination" would seem to take some explanation.

Of course, in main-stream Mormonism, the Book of Mormon is not God's last word. Unlike the vast number of Pentecostals and others who also believe in continuing revelation from God, Mormons enscripturate their prophecies. I don't know if they treat all of their revelations as new Scripture, or just some. But they have a lot of additional revelations that they have enscripturated. Nonetheless, it seems surprising that a new revelation would permit one day what it prohibited in stark terms as an "abomination" only a short time beforehand.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

"Evil for Evil" inside Prison

I've blogged about this topic before. I almost can't make myself go into prison on the nights I'm scheduled to lead the lesson on Ro 12.17, "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone." I have no right. I have no right to suggest to a group of men in prison that they follow Christ in never paying back evil for evil.

In my experience, this command barely makes a dent on the Christian's consciousness in the outside world. And if it does, it means that you don't say something nasty about your colleague at work just because he said something nasty about you.

In my life, I'm not really called to pay much of a price for actually believing this verse. The guys in prison, however, understand what Paul is asking. (And, yes, I do nuance the lesson -- it's not a lesson about pacificism. Nonetheless, the lesson has real bite in the prison context.)

At this point almost more than any other, it's all and only the cross. Jesus understands what it is not to return evil for evil. For myself, it's at that time more than any other that I would give anything to disappear entirely so that these men could receive encouragement and comfort directly from the Man who truly understands this lesson, and who carries the wounds to prove it. These men deserve no less. But instead they get me, and are kind enough not to point out how absurd it is that I introduce this topic to them.

The lesson flies directly in the teeth of the world as does no other. And it does no more so than in prison. You gotta return evil for evil in prison. You just gotta. In their situation, it's not enough to believe that Jesus blesses us when we suffer for righteousness' sake, you need to believe that Jesus blesses us when we suffer. There's a big difference.

The whole of our fallen nature rebels at this lesson. Nothing is more foolish to the world than this lesson. Understandably, the guys struggle with the implications of the lesson for the prison context. And I feel ashamed of myself, because they most likely have to bear the burden of the lesson in a way that I (Lord willing) will not. I have no right to bring this lesson to the men's attention; no right at all.

But I'm not ashamed of Jesus Christ, who does not ask anyone to bear a burden that he has not borne. So, God help me, the lesson stays in, and I go into prison the night the lesson is scheduled.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Gospel in the OT Historical Books

My impression that the idea that the OT is mainly about sin and judgment comes largely the so-called historical books. While there are a few bright spots, it often seems as though it's mainly sin, sin, and more sin. Even the good guys usually end up sinning.

There is, of course, lots and lots going on in these books. I don't at all think that they're univocal. And there are several large themes going on as well -- the inability of the natural seed to bring the kingdom, a death & resurrection motif, the presence of God in Israel's experience (in light of, and interacting with, the Temple/land structure in the Penteteuch), and lots of other stuff.

But it seems to me that one of the big overarching themes -- and one that makes what we take from the historical books to be gospel rather than judgment -- is captured by Paul in 2 Tm 2.13:

"If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself."

Through all of Israel's sin in the historical books, God keeps his promises to Israel; he remains faithful, despite human sin and faithlessness. Ultimately, God's promise resolves into Jesus going to the Cross. (The cross is proof of God's faithfulness, par excellence. A righteous man "swears to his own hurt and does not change his mind" Ps 15.4.) So, in a sense, the worse that Israel is portrayed in the OT, the better news it is -- God remains faithful. We can trust God to do what he says he'll do -- he proved that to us in these books.

I guess we always knew that. That's the point, after all, of all of those comparisons in the prophetic books of Israel to a harlot and God to a faithful husband. The thing is, though, that the historical books are the empirical meat for the prophetic skeleton. God remains faithful to sinners. It's amazing.

When David Acts Saulish

In order to get Uriah out of the way, David orders Joab to place Uriah in the fiercest fighting, then to withdraw from him. David seeks to use the battle to kill faithful Uriah.

David here seems to be re-enacting Saul's strategem against David himself: "Saul then said, 'Thus you shall say to David, "The king does not desire any dowry except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to take vengeance on the king's enemies."' Now Saul planned to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines" (1 Sam 18.25).

Perhaps David even got the idea of what to do to Uriah from what Saul attempted to do to him.

Even more, David's humility (or is it his shrewedness?) initially confounds Saul's designs. When Saul offers Merab to David, David initially declines, saying, "Who am I, and what is my life or my father's family in Israel, that I should be the king's son-in-law?" (1 Sam 18.18).

Similarly, in an attempt first to cover up his sin with (a now pregnant) Bathsheba, David brings Uriah back to Jerusalem, with the expectation that Uriah would sleep with Bathsheba, and thereby provide cover for her pregnancy. But Uriah's sense of honor and humility will not allow him to go to his wife and his home while "The ark and Israel and Judah" are in the field campaigning (2 Sam 11.11).

Ironically, even in his evil, David is better at achieving his objectives than the clumsy Saul. Saul simply trusts the Philistines to kill David in the ordinary course of the fighting. But David insures that Uriah will die in battle by ordering his own troops to withdraw from Uriah in the midst of the fighting, thereby dooming him with certainty.